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Landslides after wildfire: Initiation, magnitude, and mobility

August 11, 2020

In the semiarid Southwestern USA, wildfires are commonly followed by runoff-generated debris flows because wildfires remove vegetation and ground cover, which reduces soil infiltration capacity and increases soil erodibility. At a study site in Southern California, we initially observed runoff-generated debris flows in the first year following fire. However, at the same site three years after the fire, the mass-wasting response to a long-duration rainstorm with high rainfall intensity peaks was shallow landsliding rather than runoff-generated debris flows. Moreover, the same storm caused landslides on unburned hillslopes as well as on slopes burned 5 years prior to the storm and areas burned by successive wildfires, 10 years and 3 years before the rainstorm. The landslide density was the highest on the hillslopes that had burned 3 years beforehand, and the hillslopes burned 5 years prior to the storm had low landslide densities, similar to unburned areas. We also found that reburning (i.e., two wildfires within the past 10 years) had little influence on landslide density. Our results indicate that landscape susceptibility to shallow landslides might return to that of unburned conditions after as little as 5 years of vegetation recovery. Moreover, most of the landslide activity was on steep, equatorial-facing slopes that receive higher solar radiation and had slower rates of vegetation regrowth, which further implicates vegetation as a controlling factor on post-fire landslide susceptibility. Finally, the total volume of sediment mobilized by the year 3 landslides was much smaller than the year 1 runoff-generated debris flows, and the landslides were orders of magnitude less mobile than the runoff-generated debris flows.

Publication Year 2020
Title Landslides after wildfire: Initiation, magnitude, and mobility
DOI 10.1007/s10346-020-01506-3
Authors Francis K. Rengers, Luke McGuire, Nina S. Oakley, Jason W. Kean, Dennis M. Staley, Hui Tang
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Landslides
Index ID 70212555
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geologic Hazards Science Center